Tensions rise among protestors at the Letpadaung mountain range copper mine, in Sagaing Division, after their demands to be adequately compensated for confiscated land were rejected by the local authorities.
More than 500 residents from 12 villages, who fear forced relocation and the destruction of their crops due to excavation work, marched towards the Salingyi Township administrative office on Wednesday but were turned back en route by security forces.
Around 7,800 acres of farmlands from 26 villages surrounding Letpadaung mountain range in Salingyi Township near Monywa in Sagaing Division, were confiscated for the copper mine in 2011. The project is a joint venture between the Union of Myanmar Economic Holding Ltd (UMEH) and Wan Bao Company, a subsidiary of China North Industries Corporation.
Myint Htay, a 49-year-old farmer from Taw Kyaung Village, told The Irrawaddy, “We were on our way to the township administrative office but were stopped by the authorities at Ohn Ship Pyar Village, which is around three miles from Salingyi.”
The march took place after skirmishes broke out between villagers and the mining company at the project area on Tuesday evening. Wan Bao Company brought security forces to their compound in order to resume work and so broke an agreement they made two months ago, claim villagers.
After protests in June, the villagers demanded that the company stopped forced relocations, refrained from dumping waste from the project which damages crops, reopens locked monasteries and stops the construction of project buildings.
“The UMEH Company agreed not to pile waste and not to continue building, but they said the other two demands must be taken to higher authorities for consultation,” said U Nandasara, a monk from Hse Te Village.
Although residents were told by the local authorities that the dispute will be settled at the township office, their representatives were turned away from a meeting on Wednesday. Instead, journalists present were told that compensation had already been given to the villagers.
Four villages at the base of the mountain were already forced to relocate in May and residents in those that remain are due to move soon. One of these, Kan Taw, has already been completely moved while the others are only partially transferred as some residents have insisted on staying on their ancestral lands, according to local sources from Hse Te and Wat Hmay.
“We have lost our farmlands already and now have to move our villages too,” said Myint Myint, a resident of Myo Joe Pyin.
The villagers were paid 52,000 kyat (US $60)per acre of farmland in April 2011. They cultivate sesame, wheat, sunflowers, various beans and onions as the region generally experiences low rainfall. Initially, villagers were told the cash was reimbursement for the destruction of their crops, but allege that one year later this was changed to compensation for the loss of their land.
“Due to the loss of our farmland, we are facing economic hardship,” said Myint Htay. “I cannot even send my children to school. I have teenage children who just passed high school and there is no way for them to continue studying.”
Zaw Oo, a villager from Wat Hmay, told The Irrawaddy, “As the company resumes building, which they agreed not to continue without informing the authorities’ decisions to the residents, we told them to stop.”
But he said the company brought security personnel to prevent the villagers from interfering. Then a curfew was imposed in the vicinity from the last week of July.
“There are many policemen—hundreds arrived in their area and it is like a threat to us,” said Zaw Oo.
Since the first week of August, the villagers submitted multiple applications to the local authorities for the right to gather and protest, but seven out of 10 of these have been rejected. Nevertheless, the villagers are planning to protest in front of the Wan Bao Company office located between Moe Joe Pyin and Phaung Kar villages this week.
The Letpadaung mountain project is an expansion of the Monywa Copper Mine, which is one of the largest in Burma. The Monywa project was initiated by the Myanmar Ivanhoe Copper Company Ltd—a joint venture between the former Burmese Ministry of Mines-1 and Canada-based Ivanhoe Mines.